The city of Tokyo is plagued by a deadly phenomenon: spontaneous human combustion! Luckily, a special team is there to quench the inferno: The Fire Force! The fire soldiers at Special Fire Cathedral 8 are about to get a unique addition. Enter Shinra, a boy who possesses the power to run at the speed of a rocket, leaving behind the famous “devil’s footprints” (and destroying his shoes in the process). Can Shinra and his colleagues discover the source of this strange epidemic before the city burns to ashes?
Written & Illustrated by Atsushi Ōkubo
Originally published by Kodansha, in Weekly Shōnen Magazine
Released February 17, 2016 (Japan). November 8th, 2016 (US)
Welcome to the inaugural episode… episode? Installment? …Welcome to the first article of Drawn Conclusions – the series that aims to crack into the world of sequential storytelling to reach the most important decision of all. Should you spend your money? Comics and Manga are a wildly under-appreciated art form, but that doesn’t exactly mean absolutely every one of them is worth your time and cash. And then there might just be some series out there that you’ve never heard of, and probably would wish you had. That’s where we come in. And what better way to start off the series than by jumping into the deep end of the pool to pick apart a manga! Yeah! I can do that! Probably! Maybe. I think… Oh… oh….. what have I gotten myself into?
Ahem. Without any further ado, let’s hit the pages of Atsushi Ōkubo’s Fire Force 1, and figure out if this thing’s really a page turner… or a page burner. I promise, I was going to write that no matter what I wound up reviewing, this week. It wasn’t I pun, I swear! Really! Sigh… I know. Okay. I’ll leave, now. I’m sorry. *goes to the corner*
(Disclaimer: I am legitimately trained in interpreting the flow of American comics. Manga are obviously a little different in some regards, so there may be some things I overlook. Just keep that in mind)
CHARACTERS & TONE
Right off the bat we’re introduced to Shinra and what seems like will be the primary supporting cast for the duration of the series. Do I expect all of them to still be alive by the time this series comes to a close? …Did I mention the creator of this is the same guy responsible for Soul Eater? Yeah, if they actually manage to all survive to the end, I’ll be surprised. That said, Shinra and the 8th Unit are dominantly a pretty solid team. Despite appearances (It’s the grin. I know), Shinra isn’t the sort with a fiery, devil-may-care attitude. In fact, quite the opposite. He’s pretty awkward and self conscious, which I like. It plays against type a little. His core objective, to become a hero, is supported (at least in part) by his rather tragic backstory. The explanation of the grin is a little weak? But I have a feeling there’s just more to it, and more to his powers than is told to us in this first volume, so it’ll likely be elaborated on.
Because Shinra’s the protagonist, the majority of this first volume is spent on him and his backstory. It’s also so far not an ensemble, like with Soul and Maka. The other characters a very much playing support. This doesn’t come at their expense, however. Perhaps based on the hyper-visual nature of manga and anime over western comics and animation, a lot of character is brought out by the subtle actions of the characters, which helps to really flesh them out a bit. It works well when also considering what little information is provided on each character in this first volume. In fact, pretty much all there is for background on anyone is a line or two on what they did before joining the 8th. It works for the time being, temporarily satisfying that desire to get to know these people so we don’t mind waiting through an otherwise Shinra-centric volume. I do, however, wish we’d gotten a little bit more on a couple of the characters. I’m sure we will (partially because I’ve peaked at some untranslated pages of later volumes, and even without being able to fluently read Japanese, it’s fairly obvious big things happen with them), but I’d have just liked to see a little more here to sort of set them up a bit more. It’s primarily because the bulk of their actions were reactionary in this volume, so they didn’t have much to do.
On that note, it’s clear that a great deal of thought was put into how these characters interact with one another, because the chemistry is very much there. When the series goes for comedy, it usually works, and feels natural. The same can be said for when the series goes dark or grim. Tone is, more often than not, driven by character. If the writer wants a scene to fit a certain tone, but the characters aren’t acting accordingly, the tone can easily get lost. There are ways to use more eccentric character quirks in moments that are tonally more somber, but it’s usually best to use that as a means of letting the audience learn more about that character. Since we’re focused on Shinra, here, this isn’t the time for that. So good choices, all around. Even the most jovial characters dial things back when it’s time to be serious, and it’s appreciated. These characters aren’t one-dimensional, walking tropes. They have actual complexity. But it was expected.
What plot? No. Really. I mean… obviously the title has an overarching plot, but this particular volume doesn’t really follow any one contained narrative. It’s more setting up narratives that will be accented in the future. Things like Shinra attempting to discover the truth behind a fire that started 12 years prior, and killed his family; the 8th trying to get to the bottom of the infernal epidemic; and the beginning of the Rookie Fire Soldier Games. Each is set up sufficiently, and just enough time is spent on each to make it interesting. Oddly enough, though, I found myself rather under-invested in the Shinra fire arc, not because it was poorly handled, but because I’ve seen it a million times. So I hope it does something that’ll really rattle the formula, as the series continues.
It’s a Manga. One that’s actually narratively driven, and hyper-stylized. Manga (and Japan in general) has an incredibly strong emphasis on presentation. I’m sure it surprises no one that this book is pretty to look at. Would I prefer color? Sure. But shading can be done to the point where the effect is just as visually striking (if not more, in some cases). And the shading in this series is… actually a bit on the ‘eh’ side at spots. It’s not that it’s bad at all. More often than not, it’s actually immaculate. It’s just a stylistic decision in certain instances, made entirely on purpose. Again. Soul Eater. But the shading at times can feel like something of an odd choice. And then there’s just the occasional character who looks odd for no discernible reason. I could buy it for Soul Eater, but this is a slightly more grounded world, so it just comes across a a tad bit off-putting, and even then, only in very specific places. The action of the series (when it’s happening) is drawn very handily. I’ve seen panels in other comics and manga that use the page to make a scene appear as if it’s actually in motion. There’s a certain flow to them. This doesn’t really do that. It feels more like there are a number of meticulous decisions being made as to the use of space in order to capitalize on what I’ll just call “money panels.” The action is building to one particular moment of action, per page. And it works (and can also be done in reverse for comedic effect). When some other things have done this, I’ve noticed that it can make a book’s action seem very “starty-stoppy.” No such problem, here.
SETTING, WORLD, CONCEPT
The world is actually pretty interesting. I’m not entirely sure how to describe it, visually. It’s a weird semi-steampunk type thing, but with some modernisms and… look, it’s just weird. Setting that aside, though, the visual style isn’t what interests me. The setup revolving around this epidemic, as well as the overall concept is fascinating… and horrifying. Imagine living in a world where you could legitimately just burst into flames, one day. But that same world is one in which there’s also a chance that you could gain fire-based superpowers. That’s the kind of world we’re living in, here. Fire, itself, has always had this sort of fascinating duality to me. It can be salvation as much as it can be damnation. It can destroy and cleanse. It’s interesting to see those binaries being used. And these people are literally fighting fire with fire. Shinra’s ability to basically catch his feet on fire does seem a little odd, but referring to the after-effect as “the devil’s footprints” is admittedly pretty cool sounding. I like seeing how it’s applied creatively, as well. He uses it to do more than just run fast and jump high. Maki, another member of the 8th, has the ability to control pre-existing fire, which is also pretty entertaining to see. Though I can’t help but feel like her power really would benefit more from being seen in motion. Though it may just be that I’ve gotten used to the likes of the Human Torch, and other such pyrokinetic characters.
Would I recommend reading it? Yep! Would I recommend doing it right away? Probably not. It’s… *sigh* forgive me, I’m not doing this on purpose, I swear. It’s something of a slow burn, probably more likely to pick up the pace as time goes on. This volume, on its own, has some laughs to offer, some heart, some heart-wrenching tragedy, and everything in between. Check it out if ya want something new to read. With all that said, ladies and gents, thanks for reading.
Keep up the awesome, and take care